One out of ninety-one children are autistic. A global escalation has put disabilities as a targeted concern. From Jay Leno’s recent coverage to John Travolta’s son, Jet’s untimely death, to alarming statistical findings has elicited concern for our own children, neighbors, and friends. We are asking a vital question: Why the escalation?
Dr. J. Blumenthal, a neurologist, lists among the possible causes of Autism: environmental toxins, mercury, the preservative Thimerosal in vaccinations, processed food, compromised immune systems, and a genetic propensity. He advocates identifying the underlying cause before medicating and suggests the earlier the diagnosis helps the prognosis. If you suspect your child has a behavioral, language or speech challenge have an assessment. Your local school may have someone on staff to begin the process or they can recommend one.
Parents feel distraught upon hearing the initial diagnosis –Autism. A pediatrician often seals the fate, “Your child is disordered and it will last for a lifetime.” Reticent to give false hope they tell you what your child can’t do, rather than encouraging what they can do. Unable to predict the future, the journey of negotiating through this complicated syndrome becomes a maze of uncertainty. What treatments, diet, speech, social skills therapy or alternative modalities to pursue? How can a challenged child fit-in, end the isolation of being different and feeling out of sync? Without isolating in their private world, is there something he or she can relate to, feel good about, including moments of respite?
When I heard Joanne Lara’s, a notable expert on Autism (M.A. in special education and a BA in dance) words, “I’m on a mission to bring arts back into the schools and into the lives of our kids”, my heart leaped with applause. Fifteen years earlier I had made the same commitment with our Morph America Programs, geared for the arts.
Her enthusiasm blazed, sharing the benefits of her program Autism Movement therapy(AMT), a method to ‘wake up’ the brain. AMT is an empowering sensory integration strategy that connects both the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Ms. Lara explained, “There’s a bridge between the left and right hemisphere that transmits information. What happens with Autistic kids is that the transmission of the information is not going through. Dance and music forces the brain to reorganize itself. Through music and movement the child is asked to hear the music, process the sequence and the patterns, and then dance, it takes both sides of the brain to dance. A child, who rarely says a word, will sing.”
Children with autism excel in art: Visual arts, yoga, martial arts, horseback riding and surfing are effective and enjoyable adjuncts to traditional therapy.
The whole brain cognitive thinking approach can improve behavior, emotional states, academic performance, social and speech language skills. AMT offers a twelve-week period in which the individual can increase overall self–determination awareness along with healthier, improved self-esteem, the ultimate goal.
After attending AMT classes, and using Aut-erobics, an empowering companion video, the mother of a 9-year-old related that her daughter finally found a way to relate to her peers, and she had made her first friend. A miracle to behold: for a child that was isolated, refused to speak, or look someone in the eye.
Ms Lara shared, “We’ve seen extraordinary breakthroughs in motor and cognitive skills. Kids have fun, they laugh, and they dance their hearts out. Interaction with music opens their trust levels and their soul bursts forth. Dancing and singing is a living dream for a child who won’t speak, but desperately wants acceptance.” Autistic children feel their way through life, rather than think their way. They sense their environment first and pick up things we don’t ordinarily perceive. We tend to label and identify, while they are they are communicating through behavior and their emotions.
Watching Ms. Lara interact with students is an eye-opener; literally she makes direct eye contact, something autistic children typically avoid. She uses her whole body in a rhythmic flowing sign language that allows choice. She motions to the floor “Do you want to sit?” Then lunges a leg toward the dance floor, “Or you can dance.” Most of the children will choose dance.
Open and authentic communication with our children is vital. If you are sad, don’t deny your emotions with a happy face, instead be truthful and relate, “I am sad.” Authenticity alleviates confusion for the child who senses the discrepancy and needs help to put his emotional, upside-down world in order.
Learning whole-brain techniques apply to all of us. Learning to communicate, to listen, to acknowledge your child fundamentally as OK, helps to discipline, to be heard, and keep trust channels open with your children. If you are challenged to give direct statements to your child, whether he’s autistic or in the normal range, Aut-erobics could help build your skills to discipline, communicate effectively, and have fun with your child.